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Global atomic agency confesses little can be done to safeguard nuclear plants

Source: AP WorldStream

9/17/01 12:09:00 PM

nuclear plants

Eds: RECASTS and UPDATES throughout with details, quotes.


Associated Press Writer=

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ It would be a nightmare scenario to rival the World Trade Center attacks: A hijacked jetliner slams into a nuclear power plant, triggering a lethal Chernobyl-like disaster.

Haunted by last week's terrorism, delegates from 132 nations opened the annual conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday with calls for tighter security _ and admissions that little can be done to shield a nuclear power plant from an airborne assault.

We cannot assume that tomorrow's terrorist acts will mirror those we've just experienced, said U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, warning of the need to keep nuclear materials out of terrorists' hands.

The world must ensure that nuclear materials are never used as weapons of terror, he said.

In a message to the Vienna-based IAEA, President George W. Bush urged the agency to keep pace with the real and growing threat of nuclear proliferation.

Governments have tightened security outside nuclear power and radioactive waste facilities worldwide in the wake of last week's attacks in New York and Washington.

But Japan, which is heavily dependent on nuclear energy and has 52"nuclear plants, warned Monday that although tighter security is needed, nothing can shield the plants from a direct hit from a missile or an aircraft.

Most nuclear power plants were built during the 1960s and 1970s, and like the World Trade Center, they were designed to withstand only accidental impacts from the smaller aircraft widely used at the time, IAEA spokesman David Kyd said.

If you postulate the risk of a jumbo jet full of fuel, it is clear that their design was not conceived to withstand such an impact, he said.

In the United States, one solution could be the installation of anti-aircraft weaponry manned by military personnel who would be stationed outside the nation's 104 commercial reactors, said Paul Leventhal, president of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, a nonproliferation advocacy group.

The problem is that the industry has been in a deep state of denial for many years, Leventhal said. They don't want to unduly alarm the public. We feel the public should be duly alarmed. We're in a new era, and we must protect these plants in extraordinary ways.

In the West, nuclear power plants were designed more with ground vehicle attacks in mind, Kyd said. Although many were designed to withstand a glancing blow from a small commercial jetliner, a direct hit at high speed by a modern jumbo jet could create a Chernobyl situation, said a U.S. official who declined to be identified.

But the buildings that house nuclear reactors themselves are far smaller targets than the Pentagon posed, and it would be extremely difficult for a terrorist to mount a direct hit at an angle that could unleash a catastrophic chain of events, Kyd said.

If a nuclear power plant were hit by an airliner, the reactor would not explode, but such a strike could destroy the plant's cooling systems. That could cause the nuclear fuel rods to overheat and produce a steam explosion that could release lethal radioactivity into the atmosphere.

The IAEA said it would work more closely with Interpol and other police agencies to minimize the risk of nuclear materials falling into terrorists' hands. Over the past 12 months, there have been 13 known interceptions of trafficked nuclear material worldwide, the agency said.

Officials said it takes at least eight kilograms (17 1/2 pounds) of plutonium or 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of enriched uranium to produce a single nuclear weapon, but that only miniscule amounts of those metals are known to have been smuggled in recent years.

A nuclear weapon required tremendous expepvise. We have no indications that any terrorist group is that advanced, Kyd said.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 18, 2001


For what it's worth, the suggestion of air defense systems at nuclear plants wouldn't be remotely practical in several locations...for the same reasons that the airport near the Pentagon remains closed, probably forever.

As one example, Three Mile Island is a few seconds off the flight path for Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania (the view of the nuclear plant is always great just before landing at HIA). There's just no way to protect against a last-minute swerve into the nuclear plant.

I own't comment on the decision to build a nuclear plant next to an airport...

-- Andre Weltman (, September 18, 2001.

Exactly the same situation exists in San Diego's downtown. This region is full of heavily populated tall buildings, including Federal Government and military facilities. A last second swerve by an airplane just before landing would cremate the entire downtown area.

The margin of safety is so low there has even been concern about this occurring by accident, esp. in foggy or stormy conditions.

-- Robert Riggs (, September 18, 2001.

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